A Negro Explorer at the North Pole

Matthew Henson

Preview: Issue 1 of 11


One of the first questions which Commander Peary was asked when he returned home from his long, patient, and finally successful struggle to reach the Pole was how it came about that, beside the four Eskimos, Matt Henson, a Negro, was the only man to whom was accorded the honor of accompanying him on the final dash to the goal.

The question was suggested no doubt by the thought that it was but natural that the positions of greatest responsibility and honor on such an expedition would as a matter of course fall to the white men of the party rather than to a Negro. To this question, however, Commander Peary replied, in substance:

"Matthew A. Henson, my Negro assistant, has been with me in one capacity or another since my second trip to Nicaragua in 1887. I have taken him on each and all of my expeditions, except the first, and also without exception on each of my farthest sledge trips. This position I have given him primarily because of his adaptability and fitness for the work and secondly on account of his loyalty. He is a better dog driver and can handle a sledge better than any man living, except some of the best Eskimo hunters themselves."

In short, Matthew Henson, next to Commander Peary, held and still holds the place of honor in the history of the expedition that finally located the position of the Pole, because he was the best man for the place. During twenty-three years of faithful service he had made himself indispensable. From the position of a servant he rose to that of companion and assistant in one of the most dangerous and difficult tasks that was ever undertaken by men. In extremity, when both the danger and the difficulty were greatest, the Commander wanted by his side the man upon whose skill and loyalty he could put the most absolute dependence and when that man turned out to be black instead of white, the Commander was not only willing to accept the service but was at the same time generous enough to acknowledge it.

There never seems to have been any doubt in Commander Peary's mind about Henson's part and place in the expedition.

Matt Henson, who was born in Charles County, Maryland, August 8, 1866, began life as a cabin-boy on an ocean steamship, and before he met Commander Peary had already made a voyage to China. He was eighteen years old when he made the acquaintance of Commander Peary which gave him his chance. During the twenty-three years in which he was the companion of the explorer he not only had time and opportunity to perfect himself in his knowledge of the books, but he acquired a good practical knowledge of everything that was a necessary part of the daily life in the icebound wilderness of polar exploration. He was at times a blacksmith, a carpenter, and a cook. He was thoroughly acquainted with the life, customs, and language of the Eskimos. He himself built the sledges with which the journey to the Pole was successfully completed. He could not merely drive a dog-team or skin a musk-ox with the skill of a native, but he was something of a navigator as well. In this way Mr. Henson made himself not only the most trusted but the most useful member of the expedition.

I am reminded in this connection that Matthew Henson is not the first colored man who by his fidelity and devotion has made himself the trusty companion of the men who have explored and opened up the western continent. Even in the days when the Negro had little or no opportunity to show his ability as a leader, he proved himself at least a splendid follower, and there are few great adventures in which the American white man has engaged where he has not been accompanied by a colored man.

Nearly all the early Spanish explorers were accompanied by Negroes. It is said that the first ship built in America was constructed by the slaves of Vasquez de Ayllon, who attempted to establish a Spanish settlement where Jamestown, Virginia, was later founded. Balboa had 30 Negroes with him, and they assisted him in constructing the first ship on the Pacific coast. Three hundred slaves were brought to this country by Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, and it is said that the town of Santiago del Principe was founded by Negro slaves who later rebelled against their Spanish masters.

Of the story of those earlier Negro explorers we have, aside from the Negro Estevan or "little Steve," who was the guide and leader in the search for the fabulous seven cities, almost nothing more than a passing reference in the accounts which have come down to us. Now, a race which has come up from slavery; which is just now for the first time learning to build for itself homes, churches, schools; which is learning for the first time to start banks, organize insurance companies, erect manufacturing plants, establish hospitals; a race which is doing all the fundamental things for the first time; which has, in short, its history before it instead of behind; such a race in such conditions needs for its own encouragement, as well as to justify the hopes of its friends, the records of the members of the race who have been a part of any great and historic achievement.

For this reason, as well as for others; for the sake of my race as well as the truth of history; I am proud and glad to welcome this account of his adventure from a man who has not only honored the race of which he is a member, but has proven again that courage, fidelity, and ability are honored and rewarded under a black skin as well as under a white.

Booker T. Washington Principal, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute


The early years: schoolboy, cabin-boy, seaman, and Lieutenant Peary's body-servant—First trips to the Arctic.

When the news of the discovery of the North Pole, by Commander Peary, was first sent to the world, a distinguished citizen of New York City, well versed in the affairs of the Peary Arctic Club, made the statement, that he was sure that Matt Henson had been with Commander Peary on the day of the discovery. There were not many people who knew who Henson was, or the reason why the gentleman had made the remark, and, when asked why he was so certain, he explained that, for the best part of the twenty years of Commander Peary's Arctic work, his faithful and often only companion was Matthew Alexander Henson.

Today there is a more general knowledge of Commander Peary, his work and his success, and a vague understanding of the fact that Commander Peary's sole companion from the realm of civilization, when he stood at the North Pole, was Matthew A. Henson, a Colored Man.

To satisfy the demand of perfectly natural curiosity, I have undertaken to write a brief autobiography, giving particularly an account of my Arctic work.

I was born in Charles County, Maryland, August 8, 1866. The place of my birth was on the Potomac River, about forty-four miles below Washington, DC. Slavery days were over forever when I was born. Besides, my parents were both free born before me, and in my mother's veins ran some white blood. At an early age, my parents were induced to leave the country and remove to Washington, DC. My mother died when I was seven years old. I was taken in charge by my uncle, who sent me to school, the N Street School in Washington, DC, which I attended for over six years. After leaving school I went to Baltimore, MD, where I shipped as cabin-boy, on board a vessel bound for China. After my first voyage I became an able-bodied seaman, and for four years followed the sea in that capacity, sailing to China, Japan, Manilla, North Africa, Spain, France, and through the Black Sea to Southern Russia.

It was while I was in Washington, DC, in 1888, that I first attracted the attention of Commander Peary, who at that time was a civil engineer in the United States Navy, with the rank of lieutenant, and it was with the instinct of my race that I recognized in him the qualities that made me willing to engage myself in his service. I accompanied him as his body-servant to Nicaragua. I was his messenger at the League Island Navy Yard, and from the beginning of his second expedition to the Arctic regions, in 1891, I have been a member of every expedition of his, in the capacity of assistant: a term that covers a multitude of duties, abilities, and responsibilities.

The narrative that follows is a record of the last and successful expedition of the Peary Arctic Club, which had as its attainment the discovery of the North Pole, and is compiled from notes made by me at different times during the course of the expedition. I did endeavor to keep a diary or journal of daily events during my last trip, and did not find it difficult aboard the ship while sailing north, or when in winter-quarters at Cape Sheridan, but I found it impossible to make daily entries while in the field, on account of the constant necessity of concentrating my attention on the real business of the expedition. Entries were made daily of the records of temperature and the estimates of distance traveled; and when solar observations were made the results were always carefully noted. There were opportunities to complete the brief entries on several occasions while out on the ice, notably the six days' enforced delay at the "Big Lead," 84° north, the twelve hours preceding the return of Captain Bartlett at 87° 47′ north, and the thirty-three hours at North Pole, while Commander Peary was determining to a certainty his position. During the return from the Pole to Cape Columbia, we were so urged by the knowledge of the supreme necessity of speed that the thought of recording the events of that part of the journey did not occur to me so forcibly as to compel me to pay heed to it, and that story was written aboard the ship while waiting for favorable conditions to sail toward home lands.

It was in June, 1891, that I started on my first trip to the Arctic regions, as a member of what was known as the "North Greenland Expedition." Mrs. Peary accompanied her husband, and among the members of the expedition were Dr. Frederick A. Cook, of Brooklyn, NY, Mr. Langdon Gibson, of Flushing, NY, and Mr. Eivind Astrüp, of Christiania, Norway, who had the honor of being the companion of Commander Peary in the first crossing of North Greenland—and of having an Eskimo at Cape York become so fond of him that he named his son for him! It was on this voyage north that Peary's leg was broken.

Mr. John M. Verhoeff, a stalwart young Kentuckian, was also an enthusiastic member of the party. When the expedition was ready to sail home the following summer, he lost his life by falling in a crevasse in a glacier. His body was never recovered. On the first and the last of Peary's expeditions, success was marred by tragedy. On the last expedition, Professor Ross G. Marvin, of Cornell University, lost his life by being drowned in the Arctic Ocean, on his return from his farthest north, a farther north than had ever been made by any other explorers except the members of the last expedition. Both Verhoeff and Marvin were good friends of mine, and I respect and venerate their memories.

Naturally the impressions formed on my first visit to the Land of Ice and Snow were the most lasting, but in the coming years I was to learn more and more that such a life was no picnic, and to realize what primitive life meant. I was to live with a people who, the scientists stated, represented the earliest form of human life, living in what is known as the Stone Age, and I was to revert to that stage of life by leaps and bounds, and to emerge from it by the same sudden means. Many and many a time, for periods covering more than twelve months, I have been to all intents an Eskimo, with Eskimos for companions, speaking their language, dressing in the same kind of clothes, living in the same kind of dens, eating the same food, enjoying their pleasures, and frequently sharing their griefs. I have come to love these people. I know every man, woman, and child in their tribe. They are my friends and they regard me as theirs.

After the first return to civilization, I was to come back to the savage, ice- and rockbound country seven times more. It was in June, 1893, that I again sailed north with Commander Peary and his party on board the Falcon , a larger ship than the Kite , the one we sailed north in on the previous expedition, and with a much larger equipment, including several burros from Colorado, which were intended for icecap work, but which did not make good, making better dog-food instead. Indeed the dogs made life a burden for the poor brutes from the very start. Mrs. Peary was again a member of the expedition, as well as another woman, Mrs. Cross, who acted as Mrs. Peary's maid and nurse. It was on this trip that I adopted the orphan Eskimo boy, Kudlooktoo, his mother having died just previous to our arrival at the Red Cliffs. After this boy was washed and scrubbed by me, his long hair cut short, and his greasy, dirty clothes of skins and furs burned, a new suit made of odds and ends collected from different wardrobes on the ship made him a presentable Young American. I was proud of him, and he of me. He learned to speak English and slept underneath my bunk.

This expedition was larger in numbers than the previous one, but the results, owing to the impossible weather conditions, were by no means successful, and the following season all of the expedition returned to the United States except Commander Peary, Hugh J. Lee, and myself. When the expedition returned, there were two who went back who had not come north with us. Miss Marie Ahnighito Peary, aged about ten months, who first saw the light of day at Anniversary Lodge on the 12th of the previous September, was taken by her mother to her kinfolks in the South. Mrs. Peary also took a young Eskimo girl, well known among us as "Miss Bill," along with her, and kept her for nearly a year, when she gladly permitted her to return to Greenland and her own people. Miss Bill is now grown up, and has been married three times and widowed, not by death but by desertion. She is known as a "Holy Terror." I do not know the reason why, but I have my suspicions.

The memory of the winter of 1894 and 1895 and the summer following will never leave me. The events of the journey to 87° 6′ in 1906 and the discovery of the North Pole in 1909 are indelibly impressed on my mind, but the recollections of the long race with death across the 450 miles of the icecap of North Greenland in 1895, with Commander Peary and Hugh Lee, are still the most vivid.

For weeks and weeks, across the seemingly never-ending wastes of the icecap of North Greenland, I marched with Peary and Lee from Independence Bay and the land beyond back to Anniversary Lodge. We started on April 1, 1895, with three sledges and thirty-seven dogs, with the object of determining to a certainty the northeastern terminus of Greenland. We reached the northern land beyond the icecap, but the condition of the country did not allow much exploration, and after killing a few musk-oxen we started on June 1 to make our return. We had one sledge and nine dogs.

We reached Anniversary Lodge on June 25, with one dog.

The Grim Destroyer had been our constant companion, and it was months before I fully recovered from the effects of that struggle. When I left for home and God's Country the following September, on board the good old Kite , it was with the strongest resolution to never again! no more! forever! leave my happy home in warmer lands.

Nevertheless, the following summer I was again "Northward Bound," with Commander Peary, to help him secure, and bring to New York, the three big meteorites that he and Lee had discovered during the winter of 1894–1895.

The meteorites known as "The Woman" and "The Dog" were secured with comparative ease, and the work of getting the large seventy-ton meteor, known as "The Tent," into such a position as to insure our securing it the following summer, was done, so it was not strange that the following summer I was again in Greenland, but the meteorite was not brought away that season.

It is well known that the chief characteristic of Commander Peary is persistency which, coupled with fortitude, is the secret of his success. The next summer, 1897, he was again at the island after his prize, and he got it this time and brought it safely to New York, where it now reposes in the American Museum of Natural History. As usual I was a member of the party, and my back still aches when I think of the hard work I did to help load that monster aboard the Hope.

It was during this voyage that Commander Peary announced his determination to discover the North Pole, and the following years (from 1898 to 1902) were spent in the Arctic.

In 1900, the American record of Farthest North, held by Lockwood and Brainard, was equaled and exceeded; their cairn visited and their records removed. On April 21, 1902, a new American record of 84° 17′ was made by Commander Peary, further progress north being frustrated by a lack of provisions and by a lane of open water, more than a mile wide. This lead or lane of open water I have since become more familiarly acquainted with. We have called it many names, but it is popularly known as the "Big Lead." Going north, meeting it can be depended upon. It is situated just a few miles north of the 84th parallel, and is believed to mark the continental shelf of the land masses in the Northern Hemisphere.

During the four years from 1898 to 1902, which were continuously spent in the regions about North Greenland, we had every experience, except death, that had ever fallen to the lot of the explorers who had preceded us, and more than once we looked death squarely in the face. Besides, we had many experiences that earlier explorers did not meet. In January, 1899, Commander Peary froze his feet so badly that all but one of his toes fell off.

After the return home, in 1902, it was three years before Commander Peary made another attack on the Pole, but during those years he was not resting.

He was preparing to launch his final and "sincerely to be hoped" successful expedition, and in July, 1905, in the newly built ship, Roosevelt , we were again "Poleward-bound." The following September, the Roosevelt reached Cape Sheridan, latitude 82° 27′ north, under her own steam, a record unequaled by any other vessel, sail or steam.

Early the next year, the negotiation of the Arctic Ocean was commenced, not as oceans usually are negotiated, but as this ocean must be, by men, sledges, and dogs. The field party consisted of twenty-six men, twenty sledges, and one hundred and thirty dogs.

That was an open winter and an early spring, very desirable conditions in some parts of the world, but very undesirable to us on the northern coast of Greenland. The ice-pack began disintegrating much too early that year to suit, but we pushed on, and had it not been for furious storms enforcing delays and losses of many precious days, the Pole would have been reached. As it was, Commander Peary and his party got to 87° 6′ north, thereby breaking all records , and in spite of incredible hardships, hunger and cold, returned safely with all of the expedition, and on Christmas Eve the Roosevelt , after a most trying voyage, entered New York harbor, somewhat battered but still seaworthy.

Despite the fact that it was to be his last attempt, Commander Peary no sooner reached home than he announced his intention to return, this time to be the last, and this time to win.

However, a year intervened, and it was not until July 6, 1908, with the Godspeed and good wishes of President Roosevelt, that the good ship named in his honor set sail again. The narrative of that voyage, and the story of the discovery of the North Pole, follow.

The ages of the wild, misgiving mystery of the North Pole are over, today, and forever it stands under the folds of Old Glory.

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